Monday, April 29, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

In my blog postings about films and literature, I have always had Roger Ebert in mind. Although I didn't always agree with him, his passion for films, especially good ones, was always evident in his commentaries. He was a deeply empathetic critic.  He liked or found something positive to say about a surprising number of films, even ones that from my point of view were pallid. He was willing to give a weak film consideration if he found in it something reasonably ambitious, something human and genuine.  As a writer, he managed something most serious critics cannot achievehe expressed intelligent and sophisticated ideas in a clear, engaging style. He was usually interesting, and usually worth reading.  He wrote with integrity and intelligence. His opinions, about film and about life in general, were unpredictable and often surprising. He seemed an authentic human being. You can't say that about most public critics. Late in his life, besieged with illness, deprived of his voice, speaking only through the written word, he became something of a heroic figure.  Publishing and blogging on a wide variety of topics, he emerged as a popular intellectual.  I used his film commentaries to measure my own thoughts. I admired his public struggle with illnessthough to call it a struggle is perhaps wrong.  He lived with and adjusted to his illness and rarely seemed daunted by it.  His proclamation that he wasn't afraid of death impressed me. Few can make that claim.  He made a real impact on readers and film lovers of his time.

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

James Salter’s prose style in A Sport and a Pastime (1967) is spare, fluid, and often lyrical.  His major influence, probably, is Hemingway.  Salter writes mostly in simple sentences, with a phrase here and there, and with few if any clauses.  There’s little elaboration of his central thoughts and meanings.  He relies to an extent (like Hemingway) on dialogue, but mostly it is the clean, clear, often beautiful prose that carries one through his novel.  His ability to create tone, mood, especially in the final pages of this narrative, is impressive.

Set in the 1960s in France, A Sport and a Pastime describes the friendship of two young men, Dean and the narrator, as they travel and live in Paris and outlying regions of France.  It is a novel of imagination, and almost nothing in it may really happen, in a literal sense.  The narrator invents events or characters, transposes wishes and desires from his own life into the imagined life of his friend.  It’s possible that the narrator is in love with Dean, or that the he works out his jealousy about Dean’s romantic relationships by inventing and writing about them.  The narrator vents his own sexual dissatisfaction by imagining in graphic terms his friend’s sexual relationship with a teenage girl.  His imagined narratives are a form of wish-fulfillment. For much of the novel, each relatively short chapter ends with or at least involves a candid description of sex between Dean and his lover Anne-Marie.  Dean is a Harvard drop-out with no certain source of income other than what he can convince his father or sister to give, and what he can earn from tutoring.  It’s amazing how far he can make the money he does have go.  (Though we have to remember that much if not all that he does with it is what his friend the narrator imagines for him). 

Anne-Marie is a lower middle-class working girl who has had a few other relationships before she meets Dean.  Dean is alternately self-conscious about Anne-Marie’s lower-class status, worried about losing her, worried about marrying her, worried about what she’ll do when he leaves.  It’s clear that the girl has similar worries, but most of the time we’re not concerned with her except as a willing and avid recipient of whatever kind of sex it is that Dean wishes to have.  It’s almost incidental that Anne Marie has a name.  She’s just the receptacle of his sexual needs, and of the narrator’s.

This is Salter’s most famous novel, the one that earned him his modest reputation.  It seems somehow dated.  I’m no sexual puritan, but I sometimes felt during my reading of it not only a voyeur but even an exploiter of Anne Marie.


It’s interesting to see how much can be done with a small investment.  Obviously, a lot of donated time went to the making of Primer (2004, dir. Shane Carruth). Much of it takes place in a makeshift lab in a garage, where four guys in their off-hours work on various experiments and inventions.  They are sober, conventional, semi-geek-like, semi-normal guys.  Their experiments involve computers and tables and various chemicals and definitely don’t appear to be high-tech.  Except that they are.  Two members of the team develop a device, nearly by accident, that allows a kind of time-travel.  The device is an unassuming box covered with metal plates.  When the inventors climbin, they are able to jump back, or forward (depending on your perspective) in time far enough to learn what certain stocks will sell for, or what team will win the Final Four, and when they return to the present they use the information to make investments that pay off.  The problem is, however, that using the boxes creates duplicates of the time travelers, and parallel timelines of causality.  The guys at first use their device carefully, but ultimately they grow careless, and a billionaire inventor aka Bill Gates appears to be trying to steal it.  Things get complicated.

The film relies on the characters to explain their invention, why it works, and what it means.  They’re not even sure what to do with it, and in the end they lose control of the lines of cause and effect it creates.  The narrative is too complicated, the science is too obtuse.  The characters monologue and mumble so much that it’s difficult to figure out what’s going on.  We bog down in the premise and its development.

We have to admire this realistic and minimalist effort to tell an interesting, complicated story on a miniscule ($7,000) budget.  The film has no special effects, except the faint whirring sound of the device.  But the problem is not the budget--it’s exposition.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Pitch Perfect

Narratives about the struggles of the young to find themselves are fundamental to literature.  They’re fundamental to film as well.  In the U. S., we expect much of this self-funding to take place during college years, a time when, not incidentally, many students have parentally funded opportunities for occasional study mixed in with other forms of growth and development better left to one’s imagination, or better not.  For audiences who find pleasure in stories about young people trying to find their way in the world, grappling with difficult parents, negotiating personal ambitions with practical realities, the film Pitch Perfect (2012; dir. Jason Moore) may offer satisfaction.  For audiences who enjoyed the television series Glee (at least in its early years), Pitch Perfect will also entertain—it’s about singing and dancing and sometimes prancing college students competing for a national a cappella singing championship in.  In fact, these students sing better than the goobers in Glee, they’re more interesting, and there’s less computer manipulation of the music.  And, most of all, for those who take pleasure in films that make fun, sometimes wicked fun, of college students who try to find themselves in singing and dancing, Pitch Perfect will give you some laughs.  It really does satirize the students, their youth and inexperience on the one hand, their eccentricities and egos and inexperience and pretensions on the other.  Pitch Perfect gives us college students who still possess distinctive personalities that haven’t been worn away by four years of higher education.  They’re funny, we enjoy laughing at them, and the film also makes us care about them.

This is not a good film.  But it has entertaining moments, and was fine for watching at home.  I laughed often during the first half or so.  The acting isn’t especially good, most of the primary characters in one way or the other inhabit the expected stereotypical roles in films about the young, and the main character has creepy eyebrows.  The Breakfast Club (1985; dir. John Hughes) has a role in one of the secondary plots—I was never quite able to understand why. 

Pitch Perfect doesn’t stay true to its satiric energies.  In the end, satire surrenders to a deadpan narrative about students competing for a national prize and the fraught romantic relations of two characters.  I’d rather have kept laughing.